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Is it right to boycott Israel? Ilan Pappé vs Norman Finkelstein



In recent years, the Israeli political system has shifted to the Right, and with this have come harsher policies: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank, genocide in Gaza and apartheid inside Israel. Without an international reaction, Palestine and the Palestinians will soon disappear.

The Palestinians have tried armed struggle, which failed to liberate even one square inch of the land. They then put their faith in a diplomatic process that was meant to end the occupation of the 1967 areas [claimed by Israel after the Six-Day War]. The peace charade was based on the misconception that there is a significant voice within Jewish Israel that is willing to limit Zionist racism to 80 per cent of Palestine, and leave alone the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The ‘peace process’ allowed Israel to deepen the Judaization of the West Bank to a point of no return. At the same time, international immunity has enabled Israel to expand the apartheid system against the Palestinians inside Israel and to ghettoize Gaza. Israel has become a worse regime than Apartheid South Africa ever was.

It has to be stopped, and quickly. The same methods used against Apartheid South Africa and other rogue states are being called for. The most effective way is to send a message to the cultural and academic élites who are still received warmly in the Western world as representatives of the only enlightened state in the Middle East.

In reality, they represent a rogue regime whose moral legitimization should be questioned. They should be targeted first, and the targeting is already bearing fruit. For the first time, we hear voices of significant dissent from within these communities in Israel. It should be followed by divestment and sanctions, which have finally begun to appear – the only international activity that seems to deter the Israeli government.

The nonviolent method of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), when expanded and adopted as an official strategy by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas (and we are close to this tipping moment in time), will offer a horizon and an alternative to a desperate armed struggle that leads nowhere.


The BDS movement is said to be anchored squarely in international law. The platform consists of three planks: an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; equality of rights for Palestinian Israelis; and recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. It repeatedly points to international law as the fount of this political agenda.

The core right, from which the three-fold agenda derives, is said to be the Palestinian right to self-determination. However, BDS takes no official position on the Israeli state. Its justification for this lacuna is that it ‘adopts a rights-based, not a solution-based approach’.

Under international law, however, Israelis also have rights, including the reciprocal right to self-determination and statehood. This right has been ratified by the very same bodies to which BDS gestures in support of its ‘rights-based approach’.

BDS also invokes the ‘UN-sanctioned rights’ of Palestinians: true, the UN has sanctioned the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood, but only alongside Israel, not in lieu of it. Thus, the General Assembly’s annual resolution, the ‘Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question’, invariably ‘reaffirms its commitment, in accordance with international law, to the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, within recognized borders, based on the pre-1967 borders’.

It is hard to make out how a ‘rights-based’ movement anchored in international law can credibly claim ‘no position’ on the core right – based on one and the same international law –of the party with which it is in conflict.


BDS derives its legitimacy from Palestinian civil society and respects international law. On these twin pillars its strategy offered a 21st-century, clear definition of the right of all Palestinians to self-determination: for the refugees to return, for the citizens to be treated equally, for the occupied to be freed and for the besieged to be liberated. In the past, when this right was limited to the people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and only to a mere one-fifth of the homeland, it was inevitably a failed strategy that served well the colonizer and disadvantaged the colonized.

‘It is hard to make out how a “rights-based” movement anchored in international law can credibly claim “no position” on the core right – based on one and the same international law – of the party with which it is in conflict – Norman

BDS is very clear in its attitude towards Israel. It does now play with elusive notions such as what is meant by a ‘state’. Far more poignantly, it deals with Israel as a regime that violates all the basic rights of the Palestinians. Change the regime and you have both a state that does not stand in the way of Palestinians’ right to self-determination and, at the same time, by adhering to international law, you also cater for the rights of the Jews there. Not as people who have colonized, ethnically cleansed or committed genocide, but as equal citizens.

To sum up, this strategy, based on human rights and nonviolence, offered by the people of Palestine, points rightly to the need for regime change as a precondition for the negotiations between the representatives of the settlers of Zion and the indigenous people of Palestine.


The question was simple and, so far as I can tell, you put forth three responses.

First, that BDS does not ‘play with elusive notions’ such as the meaning of ‘state’. In fact, many BDS members (yourself included) emphatically do not consider one state in Palestine an ‘elusive notion’.

Second, that BDS ‘far more poignantly deals with Israel as a regime that violates all the basic rights of the Palestinians’. It is (or ought to be) a truism that Israel must cease its violation of basic Palestinian rights. But the question I posed was ‘how can BDS claim to be anchored in international law when it takes no position on basic Israeli rights?’

‘The nonviolent method of boycott, divestment and sanctions, when adopted as an official strategy by the PLO and Hamas, will offer a horizon and an alternative to a desperate armed struggle that leads nowhere – Ilan

Third, you propose ‘regime change’. It’s odd for a person avowedly of the Left to use the locution ‘regime change’, although it’s also indicative of a truculent mentality among some members of the BDS movement. In any event, if by ‘regime change’ you want to convey that the current Israeli regime will likely not resolve the conflict based on international law, you are surely right. But that’s evidently not what you mean. You gesture to a future state that will ‘cater for the rights of the Jews there as equal citizens’.

Wouldn’t it be more honest for you to drop the phoney pretences and contorted arguments, and just say that, notwithstanding international law, which calls for two States on the 1967 borders, you – and BDS – support one state?


The need for a new approach is illustrated in the confused way you alternate between two concepts: the right to self-determination of Israelis and the right to self-determination of Jews. Both are impossible and illogical notions, and the only reason international law did not address them is because the Palestinians, who may do so now, never asked to examine it according to their own yardsticks; so we do not know what the international law verdict on it would be. The same will be true of international law’s rulings about the changing political landscape in Iraq and Syria.

There are no Israelis who demand self-determination; there is only a Jewish community that demands an international recognition for a supremacist regime. The other notion, of self-determination for Jews, is not recognizable in international law. Religions do not demand self-determination.

So here’s the deal. The more we respect the equal rights of all those living between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, the less Jewish, Muslim or Christian the future political outfit would be, whatever you want to call it. There is no use in hiding a Zionist position behind the veil of international law.


You purport that international law hasn’t to date rendered a verdict on Palestinian claims to self-determination and statehood. You’re apparently unaware of 65 years of UN deliberations, hundreds of UN resolutions, and the International Court of Justice 2004 advisory opinion. If international law hasn’t to date addressed Palestinian rights, then how can the BDS movement’s ‘rights-based’ platform be anchored (as it alleges) in international law? If it is unknown where international law stands on Palestinian claims, then how can it be known (as BDS alleges) that the West Bank and Gaza are ‘occupied’ territories and Palestinian refugees have a ‘right’ of return?

There is a case for some general observations here. BDS is a cult. It has its guru (in Ramallah) and its mantras (‘BDS’, ‘One State, from the River to the Sea’). It functions in a hermetically sealed mental universe. Those who point to its political incoherence and flights of fantasy are routinely accused of being – God forbid! – Zionist. Like other political cults, it substitutes epithets and excommunication for rational argument.

During the 1960s, white radicals derived a masochistic pleasure from self-abasing, demeaning and degrading protestations of guilt. Beating their chests, they histrionically renounced ‘white-skin privilege’. The more they grovelled before the ‘Black vanguard of the Revolution,’ the more radical they fancied themselves to be. As it happened, they ended up doing a lot of stupid things while the ‘Black vanguard’, although publicly heaping praise on their ‘solidarity with the Oppressed’, properly harboured contempt for these pathetic flunkies who lacked personal dignity, the essential prerequisite of which is preserving one’s independence of thought. Replace a few phrases – such as ‘Jewish privilege’ instead of ‘white-skin privilege’ – and you gain insight into the mindset of some Jewish supporters of BDS.

It’s the pity’s pity that, although passing through that lamentable phase of the 1960s, they learned nothing from it and, although by now fully formed adults, they still can’t resist these juvenile antics.


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